Christians and Negotiation

Alex Chediak wrote an excellent article on Christians and negotiation about a year ago that remains relevant today and always will.

I haven’t written up anything on negotiation, but if I ever do it will be very close to what Alex wrote. He covers some of the key principles, which include:

  1. Separate the people from the problem
  2. Focus on interests instead of positions
  3. Base things on objective criteria, not subjective preferences
  4. Think win-win rather than win-lose (or, as some people actually do, lose-win)
  5. Brainstorm creatively to identify mutually beneficial solutions
  6. Know your best alternative to a negotiated agreement

This approach is called principled negotiation, as opposed to positional negotiation, and was perhaps most clearly set forth by Roger Fisher and William Ury years ago in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In.

In positional negotiation, each side states a more extreme position than it really has, planning on progressively giving up some ground until they meet in the middle. This is a poor approach to negotiation and is based on win-lose (or lose-lose) principles. It often causes people to become entrenched in their position, blinding them to better solutions that satisfy both parties and interests. And it often harms relationships. Yet it is what most people think of when they think of negotiation.

Principled negotiation is a more human approach, while also being more effective. It separates what each side really wants (their interest) from the specific way they currently have in mind of getting there (their positions), and seeks to create solutions to problems that benefit everyone in some way. This is possible because there is often more than one position that will solve someone’s ultimate interest. Yet often times we come into a negotiation unable to see these because we aren’t distinguishing the ultimate aim (interest) from the specific way we have in mind of getting there (position).

Principled negotiation also proceeds on the basis of objective criteria, rather than subjective judgments about “the way things should be” and what each party simply wants in the abstract.

And instead of each side coming with their positions defined ahead of time and progressively giving up ground, both sides brainstorm options for mutual gain together, with the aim of identifying options which satisfy both interests (remember here the distinction between position and interest). Each side is not progressively giving up their positions to meet in the middle; they are stepping up to a higher horizon and brainstorming options that will meet the underlying interests of both.

The outcomes of principled negotiation are:

  1. Building of the relationship (rather than harming it, as is often the case in positional negotiation)
  2. Satisfaction of the reasonable interests of both sides
  3. Reasonable resolution of genuine conflicts of interest

I think that positional negotiation is very much in line with the fact that as Christians, we should be about the interests of others all the time, not just sometimes.

So even when negotiating with others, we don’t set aside the biblical commands to be pursuing the welfare of others. Yet, when others see things differently, pursuing the interests of others does not necessarily mean setting aside the legitimate interests that we want to see accomplished. The way to reconcile both of these realities is not to give up on what we think should be done, but to proceed in a win-win fashion, aiming to come up with a solution that satisfies the interest of both sides, on the basis of objective criteria.

  • Jerry Wall

    You may also be interested in Peacemaker Ministries’ PAUSE principle of negotiation (, which has a strong emphasis on “Affirming Relationships” and “Understanding the Interests of Others” in negotiation.

  • Andrew Boughton

    I agree with the principled approach when it is appropriate. I’m a realist, and there are times when it is a one-off transaction, all about price, with no need for trust or relationship. In these distributive cases, you will be exploited by the other party if you adopt a principled approach. I’d like to believe we can all collaborate all of the time, that’s just not reality. As an addendum to your article here’s some advice for those rare occasions you need to adopt a positional approach.